Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome

Production Run: Tue 16 - Sat 20 May 2017

Performance Reviewed: Tue 16 May (Press Night)

Despite only arriving as relatively recently as the early 1980’s, La Cage Aux Folles was a show decidedly ahead of it’s time. Sure, the early genesis of some of Harvey Fierstein’s later outings can be felt in this, his first major foray into musicals - few will be surprised to learn the likes of say, Kinky Boots, sprung from the same pen. But whereas Boots strutted into a mainstream already percolated with the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Fierstein’s own Edna matriarch in Hairspray, amongst others, La Cage shimmered into focus at a very time. The depiction of a gay couple having raised a child and there being a degree of normality and authenticity to their years together was a relatively new and daring through-line for a mainstream musical at the time, and it sadly was not without its critics and deriders.

Thankfully, we come to this revival of La Cage - and it’s first ever UK Tour - at a far more progressive time. Some may argue that it means the show has lost some of its bravura and edge, and it’s true that the central relationship between Albin (John Partridge) and Georges (Adrian Zmed) feels comfier and decidedly less unconventional or even ‘brave’ than it perhaps once did, but that’s merely a very welcome consequence of attitudes shifting with time.

Likewise, the show’s overarching message of acceptance, as well as its rumination on love and family, are safer and more familiar than they likely resonated in the midst of the 1980’s, before civil partnerships, gay marriage and adoption became commonplace (or even legal). So has La Cage had it’s wings clipped, or does it still entertain and dazzle as a piece of raucous, uplifting entertainment as proudly and unabashedly as ever?

The answer falls somewhere in between the two. As mentioned, this is the first touring production of the show in the UK, and every penny is on the stage. It is a dazzling spectacle of a show, with Gary McCann’s ornate and decadent set design and Ben Cracknell’s lighting making, perhaps unsurprisingly, the cabaret performances set in the titular nightclub the most opulent and extravagant treats of the night. Jerry Herman’s music is also still a delight - there’s the big, iconic tentpoles of ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘The Best Of Times’, but there’s also a lot of charm and fun to be found in the smaller, character focus of, say, ‘With Anne on My Arm’ and ‘Song on the Sand’.

The central premise of the story still holds up solidly, too. Ageing nightclub owner Georges (Adrian Zmed) must come to terms with the announcement that his only son, Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter) is getting married. The only major snag comes in the form of his new finance’s ultra-conservative and homophobic parents, who are due to visit and will no doubt vehemently disapprove of Georges’ long-term relationship with the club’s star attraction, and love-of-his-life, Albin / ‘Zaza’ (John Partridge). 

The cross-dressing subterfuge and hijinks of the show’s second Act, where Georges and Albin are forced to play husband and (biological) wife, still work fabulously, and it’s true that La Cage has lost very little of its innate humour, even if some of the characterisation work here, such as Samson Ajewole’s ‘maid’ Jacob, fall a little broader. Some of the busier or more farcical comedy sequences are a touch cluttered and scattershot in places, and similarly there’s the odd moment where the generally impressive group choreography by Bill Deamer could do with some tightening. Overall, though, this is still a show that remains relentlessly entertaining, effortlessly glamorous, wonderfully sassy and positively brimming with heart and poignance.

It’s biggest focus is undoubtedly John Partridge’s turn as Albin/Zaza. Adrian Zmed gives warm vocals and a likeable turn as Georges, but it’s Partridge who dominates proceedings, which opens up the question as to how good a thing that actually is. Make no mistake - it’s a fantastic, bold and spirited turn - from an idiosyncratic Northern tang, some terrific comic timing and an undeniably captivating stage presence, Partridge meets the confidence of his interpretation with equally indomitable vocals, to boot.

The only question it raises is whether or not La Cage should be quite so Albin-centric. He’s undoubtedly the star of the piece, and Harvey Fierstein’s book has always facilitated ‘Zaza’ as the showier turn, but there’s a strong argument to be made that the entire raison d’être of La Cage is that Albin is merely one half of a whole. By the time we arrive at a slightly jarring - and not entirely justified - extended improv sequence before the Act 1 finale, there’s a slightly disconcerting sense that, as fantastically as Partridge is playing it, Zaza may have run away with the show.

In the end, as joyous and fun as it may be, one would be hard pressed to call this first touring production the definitive interpretation of La Cage. It lacks some of the focus of its forebears, and where it was once daring and controversial, it may now have to make do with just being very good, very funny and set to very memorable music. But if the show’s impact has dulled with time, thankfully none of its innate heart or humour have. Technically, Kenwright’s tour is a knockout, too, and the company is littered with some great supporting turns - including a fine turn from Dougie Carter as young Jean-Michele.

And in John Partridge, the show has found itself a powerful, confident and hugely charismatic Zaza, even if the character’s showy dominance may find some walking away wishing for a little more ‘We Are What We Are’ and not quite so much ‘I Am What I Am’. 

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 0844 338 5000​  / Official Website: click​